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With L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar arrested and suspended, who’s in charge in his district?

El Sereno resident Hugo Garcia
Not having a voting councilman “creates a feeling that we don’t have anybody going to bat for us,” says Hugo Garcia, who heads the El Sereno Organizing Committee.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Hours after Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar was arrested and charged in a corruption probe, he was swiftly suspended by the rest of the council.

His paychecks were soon cut off and his name disappeared from the District 14 newsletter. In Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and El Sereno, his name was even papered over on signs for his field offices.

For the record:

8:54 AM, Aug. 08, 2020In an earlier version of this article, a comment by
City Council District 14 spokeswoman Laura McKinney
— “there’s nothing that precludes CD 14 from advocating on behalf of its residents or connecting residents with voting members of the City Council” — was misattributed to Council President Nury Martinez.

Huizar, the message is clear, is no longer in charge. But weeks later, many Angelenos remain puzzled about who is actually running the council office that represents neighborhoods stretching from downtown to Eagle Rock.

“We’re all asking the same question about what’s going to happen now,” said Marco Antonio Navarro, a Boyle Heights resident who sits on a neighborhood council. “We’re just in a state of limbo.”

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A proposed ordinance would allow L.A. to revoke city approvals for real estate projects if the City Council finds developers engaged in corruption.

Although residents voted in March to elect former state Senate leader Kevin de León to the Eastside seat, he is not slated to be sworn in until December. Former Huizar employees still staff the office, but district spokeswoman Laura McKinney, when asked about a recent decision at City Hall, sent along a statement not from Huizar but from “Council District 14.”

When Huizar was suspended, “a traditional caretaker was not designated for CD 14,” McKinney said in another statement. “This gave the public perception that CD 14 was not in a position to carry out the delivery of essential city services.”

McKinney said that despite that perception, district staffers are currently working under the direction of Eduardo Soriano-Hewitt, Huizar’s chief of staff, to respond to residents’ concerns and ensure that city services are delivered during the pandemic. Navarro said that for day-to-day concerns about issues like street sweeping, “everything seems to be running as usual.”

But others complain that, without a council member to cast votes or introduce motions at City Hall, they are no longer represented like other Angelenos. Even before he was suspended, Huizar had stopped going to council meetings and voting. The last time he introduced any motions was in mid-May, according to city records.

“The staff may be there, but what is the staff empowered to do at this moment?” asked Rolando Cruz, a Boyle Heights resident who heads the tenants rights group Inquilinos Unidos. “Who is casting votes on behalf of the constituents?”

Other council members can still introduce motions for the district once represented by Huizar. For instance, Council President Nury Martinez recently introduced a motion to help a school in the downtown district get a permit to prepare for a campus expansion project, at the request of Huizar staffers. Such motions are first vetted by city analysts.

McKinney said that Martinez’s office “has set up informal procedures for our office to address issues on an ad hoc basis,” since “there are no formal procedures laid out in the charter for suspended council members.” Martinez has been determining whether to introduce motions from the downtown district, focusing on “high-priority” matters, McKinney said.

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If local residents have legislative concerns, McKinney added, “there’s nothing that precludes CD 14 from advocating on behalf of its residents or connecting residents with voting members of the City Council.”

Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar
Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, center, arrives at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday for a conference to set his trial date.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

But Estela Lopez, executive director of the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, said she was troubled during a recent debate on resuming comprehensive cleanups of homeless encampments that there was no one on the council representing skid row, located in Huizar’s district. Nor was there anyone representing the district during debates over the police budget.

“We don’t have a voice right now at the City Council,” said Lopez, who lives just outside the district and whose group advocates for downtown business and property owners. “How can the second-largest downtown in the country not have representation at a pivotal if not historic moment in our country’s history?”

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El Sereno resident Hugo Garcia said that not having a voting councilman “creates a feeling that we don’t have anybody going to bat for us.”

Garcia, who heads the El Sereno Organizing Committee, said he has been concerned about how the city will address the needs of a homeless encampment on the Huntington Drive median, including sufficient toilets, more trash collection, housing referrals and supportive services to address mental health, substance abuse and other needs.

He wants there to be a community task force to address those issues, but thinks it will be harder to initiate without an active councilman.

And when Cyndi Otteson, an Eagle Rock resident who recently ran for the council seat, wanted to support calls for an investigation into police tactics used against Black Lives Matter protesters in the Fairfax district, she ended up not sending an email because “I didn’t have a council person to put pressure on.”

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In another instance, when she wanted to urge the council to defund the Police Department and redirect money to other services, she emailed the council president.

“But I’m not sure how much traction that is getting,” Otteson said.

De León has also expressed concerns about the lack of representation: At one point, he stepped in to oppose a move to reallocate funding from the downtown streetcar project, arguing that doing so would be “taking advantage” of the absence of a voting representative. The council shunted the proposal back to a committee.

A prosecutor identified three relatives of indicted L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar as witnesses rather than targets of the ongoing pay-to-play probe.

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Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said that suspending an official means that his or her office is temporarily vacant. So far, however, no one else has been appointed to the seat. Even though Otteson ran against De León for the seat, she said she would like to see him appointed as soon as possible so that residents have representation.

De León told the Boyle Heights Beat in a July interview that he was ready to take over, but “I want to make sure that there is legal clarity.” At the time, De León said his understanding was that “unless there’s a conviction or a voluntary resignation, which there has been neither, that seat currently is occupied” by Huizar.

As of Friday, however, De León said his “understanding has shifted” on when and how an appointment could be made and that his team was working with other city officials to make sure the district has a voting representative as soon as possible.


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